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What Can Make Robots More Human-like?

What Can Make Robots More Human-like?

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What is affect and why is it important for humans? How can feelings be defined and what is their relation to emotions and consciousness? What might be used in making a soft robot? Professor Antonio Damasio (University of Southern California, USA) discussed these and other questions in his honorary lecture, entitled 'Feeling, Knowing, and Artificial Intelligence'. The talk was delivered on April 16 at the at the XXII April International Academic Conference held by HSE University jointly with Sberbank.

Professor Antonio Damasio

Soft robotics has recently acquired popularity among both neuroscientists and data scientists, as it addresses the issue of making robots human-like. In order to become human-like, robots need to become vulnerable. From the perspective of neuroscience, the affect is what makes humans vulnerable.

Feelings and Emotions—What Is the Difference?

Hunger, thirst, pain, well-being, desire, fatigue, etc, are all examples of feelings. Ups and downs in body states, which reflect homeostatic needs of the body, are translated into feelings. And homeostatic feelings are the core of affect.

Formally defined, feelings are mental experiences of body states consequent to ongoing homeostatic regulation. It is clear that

  • feelings are experiences rather than actions;
  • the genesis of feelings lies in the variations in body states;
  • feelings are completely related to homeostatic regulation.

It is critical to distinguish feelings from emotions and understand how they are related.

Feelings are subjective events; they are not objective any way. Whereas emotions are collections of actions (visible to others) and processes in the body

In fear we recoil, our facial expression changes, muscular tension increases, and concentration of neurochemical mediators in the blood stream increases. So, emotions are theatres—we act them out.

Film and theater actors play emotions while not having subjective feelings. But they convince us that they have those feelings—certain internal states—through portraying them.

Importantly, emotions can cause feelings: fear may engender changes in the body state, thus, resulting in feelings

From Physiology to Mental Experiences

There are no complete explanations on how bodily physiological processes are translated into mental experiences. This problem has biological, psychological, and philosophical aspects. The search for explanations necessarily draws attention to the nervous system (here meaning, the brain): its architecture and functional mechanisms.

Correspondingly, two questions are critical. First, how the nervous system generates maps of the world external to the body and processes inside the body; second, how the nervous system assesses the maps, in other words, makes us conscious.

What Is Going On Inside and Outside Our Bodies: Two Perception Channels

Thanks to the nervous system, we can perceive what is going on in the body (interoception) and outside of it (exteroception). Both exteroceptive and interoceptive channels ensure signals are perceived, processed and stored in the nervous system.

Visual signals of the external environment start their neural journey from the retina, then reach the optic nerve, which maps the signals onto the visual cortex. After further processing of the signals in the brain, we acquire maps of visuals and their features (depth, forms, colour, etc.).

However, there are substantial differences in the architecture of channels for interoception and exteroception. First, in systems such as hearing, touch, and vision (which ensure information flow from the outside into the body), axons (long, slender projection of a nerve cell, or neuron) are fully myelinated, which allows them to transport external signals without leakage. Meanwhile, interoceptive channels work through denuded axons. So, they may interact with each other and be affected by the metabolic surrounding. As a result, the signal leakage is inevitable.

Second, as signals are about to enter the nervous system (or are at the crossroad of structures inside the nervous system), there is not blood brain barrier (BBB) in the neural channels in the case of interoception as opposed to the exteroception. So, the world of the blood system mingles with the world of the nervous system. Consequently, processes and states such as metabolism, digestion, and tiredness, have direct flow into the nervous system. And due to the closeness of the exteroceptive channels, the internal bodily processes find their separate mapping in the nervous system and underlie homeostatic feelings.

Importantly, the maps of the external events can be evaluated from the perspective of the body. Hence, they can affect the body, interact with the interoception of internal genesis, and modify feelings

Imagine you cut your finger. First, you feel pain (something happens in the internal world), but then the pain subsides although the emotions are still there and make you take actions concerning the external processes and objects that caused you pain.

Role of Consciousness

Conscious nature of feelings is critical. Feelings have come to living organisms (here, organisms with nervous system) with consciousness and brought deliberation. Up to the birth of feelings, organisms were regulated autonomously (by autonomic nervous system—sympathetic nervous system). The organism could not and did not need to intervene the regulation deliberately.

Now, when we follow other sophisticated creators or when we think about ourselves, one important thing is the “I KNOW”. The feeling produces conscious knowledge

And since the feelings are about being conscious of body states consequent to homeostatic regulations, then feelings open space for deliberate regulations. This is what should be mimicked in soft robots: make them reactive to their own operational state, instill interoception in them.

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